You know how whenever the federal government puts out a new budget or new income tax rules, there's always this B-roll footage shown on the


Awards Season: James Beard Semi-Finalists List Is Out

You know how whenever the federal government puts out a new budget or new income tax rules, there's always this B-roll footage shown on the news of some poor congressional staffer lugging around bound copies thicker than two phone books put together?

Yeah, well that's kind of the stage we're at right now with the annual run-up to the James Beard Awards. A couple days ago, the venerable James Beard Foundation put out their big list of semi-finalists for the 2011 Chef and Restaurant Awards--the feel-good portion of the proceedings, where white jackets and beleagured owners from places like Anchorage, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis get to believe for a moment or two that they've got a chance at competing against the heavy hitters from Chicago, San Francisco, and NYC. And not to take anything away from these restaurants--at this stage of the game, it really is an honor just to be nominated--but every year there's this groundswell of food-writerly rumbling, wondering if this will be the year that some wild genius from out in the sticks unseats one of the Manhattan favorites for Best New Restaurant.

The answer, nearly without exception, is no. As in every year, the big restaurant cities will gobble up the lion's share of the awards. Most of the truly talented cooks from places that aren't New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or San Francisco will fall off the list by the time the finalists are announced. And by the time the awards are handed down, the usual suspects will once more be lauded for their genius and knife skills.


Well actually, this year looks to be a little bit strange in the James Beard Universe. Of the 33 Best New Restaurant semi-finalists, only three are from New York City. And on the Outstanding Chef list are three San Franciscans, but Philadelphia has as many chefs in contention as Chicago does, and NYC doesn't have anyone at all.

So what does this mean? What with the economy, unemployment, and all the other bad news of the past 365, maybe it was just a really sucky year for restaurants in the big cities. Maybe there was some kind of one-year ban placed on chefs like Eric Ripert and David Chang from sucking up all the awards. I don't know. But it's a wide-open field right now, and here's how things are looking for our local talent.

Best New Restaurant:

Of the 33 semi-finalists, Seattle only scored once, with Ethan Stowell's Staple & Fancy. Is it deserved? Absolutely. But, seriously, no Book Bindery? That's just criminal.

Outstanding Chef:

Seattle scored here with two unsurprising nominees: Holly Smith from Cafe Juanita (a James Beard favorite) and Jerry Traunfeld from Poppy (also a multiple nominee). Both good choices, to be sure, but there has been a lot of action in the Seattle scene in the last year, and none of the noise seemed to have reached the ears of the Beard nominators.

Outstanding Restaurant:

Cafe Juanita, again. The double nomination bodes well for Smith and her crew.

Outstanding Restaurateur:

Tom Douglas snagged the only local nom for what is essentially the Big Time Operator award, and is up against some very heavyweight competition from all across the country. I've got no complaints here. Though Ethan Stowell is on the rise, Douglas is still the only guy we've got that's an empire builder on par with those in the bigger cities.

Outstanding Service:

Canlis, natch.

Outstanding Wine Service:

Nelson Daquip from Canlis, double natch.

Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional:

Alex Golitzen from Quilceda Creek in Snohomish. And not to take anything away from Golitzen, but this is the category in which brewers and vintners go up against bartenders and curators of the cocktail, so seriously? Nothing for Zig Zag? Nothing for Needle and Thread?.

Rising Star Chef of the Year:

No surprise at all that Blaine Wetzel from the Willows Inn took this one. On breeding alone (dude cooked at Noma with Renee Redzepi), it's a well-deserved nomination.

Best Chef Northwest:

Now here's where I get confused. Washington state has a strong showing this year. There's Chris Ainsworth from Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen in Walla Walla, Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang from Joule, Matt Dillon of Sitka & Spruce, Mark Fuller from Spring Hill, Ethan Stowell from Staple & Fancy, and Jason Stratton from Spinasse. These are all good choices. I'm not arguing with a single one. But with the exception of Staple & Fancy, this could easily have been a list from last year. Or the year before. Where is Shaun McCrain from Book Bindery? Tough and McCracken from Spur/Tavern Law or Belickis from Mistral Kitchen? Or even Jason Franey from Canlis? There seems to be a definitive slant in the direction of traditionalism and away from modernity this year, which I find a little bothersome.

Still, it's a good list we've got going into the finals this year--a bit old-fashioned, but strong and, in a way, definitive of the PNW style. Now all we can do is wait and see who makes it through the next cut.

But in the meantime, if you want to take a gander at the full list (and wonder for yourselves at the strange turns it has taken this year), you can check it out right here.

And if you want to stay updated on all the latest news in the worlds of food, chefs, whiskey and breakfast cereal, you can always follow me on twitter, @Jason_Sheehan

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